Skip to main content
Publish date:

18 Things Writers Should Know When Writing About Infectious Diseases

Incorporating the science of diseases into your work can create heightened tension and greater stakes—but it’s important to get it right. Here, Dr. John S. Tregoning shares 18 things writers should know when writing about infectious diseases.

As a scientific academic based at Imperial College London, U.K., I do research on infectious diseases, particularly those pathogens that get into your lungs. I have recently published a book (imaginatively called Infectious) about the science of infectious disease research and the drugs and vaccines that mean we are less likely to die.

(Flat on My Back and Writing in My Head: On Writing My Book After a Stroke (and Believing I Was Sherlock Holmes))

As more writers look to incorporate infectious diseases into their work, there are quite a few things writers should keep in mind:

1. Don’t anthropomorphize. Really easy to do, but scientifically wrong. Viruses don’t want to kill you; bacteria don’t want to infect you; parasites don’t want to make your blood curdle. None of these things are big enough to be sentient to want to do anything. They just do it (or don’t do it).

2. Scientists are often wrong. Most of what scientists do is test out ideas. Being human most of these ideas are wrong. Outside of the scientific community, and to be honest outside of that scientist’s lab, you are unlikely to hear about the failed ideas and false starts, but they do happen. If a scientist is right all the time, they are lying.

3. Science isn’t a cult; scientists are not of one mind. This goes with the above, being wrong implies someone else might be right. Don’t write about all scientists agreeing or acting in parallel. There will be general trends but in a fast-moving situation; for example, the emergence of a previously unknown viral pandemic, there will be lots of different theories bouncing around.

4. Science takes time. Invest some of your time in finding out how long things take. The pandemic may have accelerated the speed at which we can detect infections—particularly the lateral flow tests—but most science is painstaking and slow. Not only the in the lab bit, but also the data analysis and sitting at the computer.

Infectious book cover

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

5. Science is a team sport. The myth of the lone (male) genius is exactly that, a myth. Science is done in groups, and all of whom are required to get to the end result.

6. Scientists can be women. Kind of obvious, I know, but worth reiterating.

7. Science is just a job. With which comes all of the usual difficulties—people don’t pull their weight, the boring jobs fall on the same shoulders, shared trash cans never get emptied. The difference is that a trash can in a lab can contain things that would, if not kill you, do you some damage.

8. Personal protective equipment. Coming back to the “things can kill you” part of the job, because of this scientists tend to be quite careful in their approach to it. This includes wearing gloves, lab coats, safety glasses, and TYING YOUR HAIR BACK if it’s long. It is the same as Edna Mole’s “no capes.” Flowing hair looks cool all the way to the explosive ball of flames that engulfs someone’s head.

9. Equipment. Most scientific labs are run on a shoe-string with bits of kit held together by duct tape. It often breaks.

10. Not everything grows in a petri dish. Petri dishes are quite a specific piece of plasticware—round in shape with a plastic lid, which are mostly used to grow bacteria. The bacteria are grown on a type of jelly made from seaweed called agar. Other pathogens are grown in other ways—parasitic worms, for example, have to be cultured in rat’s legs and then collected in a blender (yes, it is as gross as it sounds).

11. Infections spread fast. Whilst science is slow, infections can spread fast, but invisibly. The number of new people infected by the original patient is called the R0. This value can vary between pathogens, but anything greater than one means it will spread.

18 Things Writers Should Know When Writing About Infectious Diseases

12. Except those that don’t. Some pathogens can stay hidden in the body for years, HIV the virus that causes AIDS lives in the infected persons body for a long time before progressing into a disease. The problem is that these kind of infections can spread far before anyone realizes they are a problem.

13. Viruses are small. You can’t see viruses down a normal microscope—they need a special microscope called an electron microscope. These are highly specialized and take a long time to make the preparations to be able to see the virus. Normally viruses are detected by inference—measuring part of them using an assay that can amplify tiny amounts of material, for example PCR.

14. Viruses don’t really cause zombie apocalypses. Shouldn’t really need stating but thought it is worth putting in just in case.

15. Vaccines work. But they take time. The best vaccine in the world will still only prevent infections two weeks after it is given. Drugs are quicker, but still take some time. But the good news is an infection is not going to kill you (or turn you into a zombie) quickly, so they both have time to work.

16. Plague Inc. is an app that gives you a pretty good sense of how infections spread and some of the variables that alter the spread.

17. Station Eleven is one of the best books about pandemic viruses and the impact—not just the death, but the impact on infrastructure which has a greater impact.

18. Research the topic. I guess I was somewhat fortunate when writing Infectious, as I had 10 years of lectures to draw upon, but I still had to do deep dives to get more information. Wikipedia is as good as any place to start research about infections, then follow the rabbit warren of links from articles. Most of the articles are written by scientists or science literate enthusiasts. For a deeper dive you can look for original scientific articles—the website PubMed has pretty much every article ever written indexed.

Writing the Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel

In this six-week course, you'll discover the essential elements of fictional worlds, how to write a science fiction novel with intriguing characters and plot, and write up to 2,500 words for your science fiction or fantasy story.

Click to continue.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 27

For the 2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Today's prompt is to write a remix poem.

15 Promotional Ideas for Nonfiction Authors

15 Promotional Ideas for Nonfiction Authors

For the introverted writer, the process of promoting your book may seem to be a daunting, even frightening undertaking. Here, nonfiction author Rick Lauber lays out 15 promotional ideas for authors to get their books into as many hands as possible.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 26

For the 2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Today's prompt is to write a Well Blank poem.

Black Friday Savings 2021

Take Advantage of Our Black Friday Deals This Weekend

At Writer's Digest, there's no need to get up early or push and shove at stores to get your Black Friday deals. In fact, we give you the whole weekend to take advantage of them. Check them out here.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Break

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Break

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, your character receives an unexpected break or benefit.

The Joys and Challenges of Writing About Food

The Joys and Challenges of Writing About Food

Food takes on a main role in Annabel Abbs' novel, Miss Eliza's English Kitchen, where research incorporated all the senses. Here, she discusses the joys and challenges of writing about food.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 25

For the 2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Today's prompt is to write a thankful poem.

How To Turn an Idea Into a Chapter Book Series

How To Turn an Idea Into a Chapter Book Series

From finding the idea to writing the manuscript and sending it off to agents, author Christine Evans maps out how to turn an idea into a chapter book series.

8 Tips for Developing a Thrilling Espionage Premise

8 Tips for Developing a Thrilling Espionage Premise

Maintaining tension and high stakes requires careful attention in the writing process. Ambassador Philip Kaplan offers 8 tips for developing a thrilling espionage premise that helped him in writing his debut book, Night in Tehran.